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11 Aug, 2009 06:07

Russian children’s charities under scam attack

Russian charities raising money for sick children say they've become the victims of fraudsters. Scam artists have cloned websites used for fund-raising and are skimming money from donors.

Sasha was born with a rare heart condition which has caused him to grow rapidly – the 13-year-old is already almost two meters tall – and also left him dependent on medication.

There's no cure, but his life is made more comfortable with the care of his grandparents and, more importantly, vital support from a charity fund.

“We couldn't find all the money we needed for Sasha at once, but the fund let us solve the problem without taking loans from anyone. We simply didn't have time for running around. The fund considers such cases and offers vital help,” Sasha’s grandfather Nikolay Taran says.

However, unfortunately this form of support is being exploited by scam artists hoping to use sick children for their profit.

Most of the charity-for-children websites look alike, with photos of sick, handicapped or under-privileged children, and asking for donations. Those which are found to be fake are quickly closed down, but they can be hard to identify.

The real charity websites and the fraudulent ones are basically identical in format and structure – sometimes the scam artists don’t even change the children’s names – they just give different bank details, as charity worker Maria Urusova found out when her charity’s website was targeted.

“They had completely copied the design of our site and its content. They gave a fake e-mail address pretending to be the one of this girl's mother, telling people they could write to her and get the bank account information for money transfers. We wrote an e-mail to this address pretending to be potential money donors. We received an answer from the supposed ‘father’ with the banking information – and then we contacted the police,” Maria says.

It’s a big worry for those trying to raise money legitimately.

Nadezhda Chetvyorkina is setting up a new charity project supporting children suffering from organ failures. Her fund relies heavily on donations from the internet and she wants to make sure people don’t lose faith and stop giving money altogether.

“These scams leave a stain on the reputation of charity funds that have been operating for a long time already. My message to those people who are fraudulent is that sick or disabled people would never do anything like that. I just don’t understand how they can be so ruthless,” says Nadezhda.

The advice issued from charities to potential donors is: if no contact information is mentioned on the website, don’t transfer money. If there is contact information, you should call these people and check the bank details.

Charitable organizations are calling for more regulation and vigilance to stop criminals swindling money from trusting donors – but of course it’s not the generous members of the public who are the real victims.

While they might lose money, others are missing out on life-saving treatment and care.